The real star of HBO’s adaptation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife”—based on Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel, which was turned into a movie starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in 2009—isn’t Rose Leslie, who plays Claire, and whom you’d hardly recognize as Ygritte from “Game of Thrones,” due to her near-perfect American accent. Theo James—who plays Henry, Claire’s creeptastic time-traveling boyfriend and eventual husband—isn’t the star either, and not just because his wooden performance would be more interesting if he were actually a tree. No, the real star of this woeful, pointless television programme is its toxic gender and sexual politics.
The plot here could have been created by shoving every rom-com made between 1995 and 2005, plus a copy of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” into an autoregressive language model. When she’s six years old, Claire Abshire meets Henry de Tamble (and people think my name is weird) in a meadow near her rich parents’ idyllic country home. Henry is in his 30s. He is naked when he first meets Claire, a child, so he requests that she bring him some of her father’s clothes, and leave them in a box under a rock, so they stay dry because he might/will return. She happily performs this task, and the pair strike up what the series would like to call a friendship, but I prefer to think of it as straight-up grooming. From ages 6 to 18, Claire, in her own words, shapes her libido around Henry. Claire flirts with him once she’s 16, even though the Henry she has met has always been at least 30 years old, often even older. (She even says to him that she resented his unavailability during her “very horny adolescence.”) Based on his comments, tween Claire deduces that in the future, she and Henry are married. Eww.
It gets worse. The Henry that Claire meets in her 20s, when she is an art student and he is working in a library, is “an asshole.” He drinks too much, and it is implied he is an abusive boyfriend. Claire longs for the Henry she met when she was a child, and cannot have that Henry yet because it is she, through her love, care, and consistent support, who turns him into the loving, caring, and supportive Henry he becomes.
Different versions of Henry hop around timelines so convoluted even Abed Nadir from “Community” would find them impossible to analyze. Sometimes they are linear, sometimes they’re not, and no matter the timeline the writing, acting, directing, editing, and music range from mediocre to horrible. Blake Neely’s hackneyed string-and-piano-heavy score, which could have easily been borrowed from any Lifetime or Hallmark movie, backs almost every scene in the series. Using music as a substitute for storytelling doesn’t work if the story is preposterous to begin with. The color grading in the series is, 99% of the time, yellow, orange, and pink, but at a party just before Henry and Claire’s wedding, the lighting suddenly changes to [insert “Scooby Doo”-style ghost noises] dark blue and grey. Thank you, writers’ room, for signaling dark and serious things are about to happen!
Henry does not control where he goes, or when, or for how long, but multiple versions of him, at different ages, show up at significant events: the violent car accident that killed his mother, an opera singer (Kate Siegel, whose performance is bizarrely over the top, and whose hair and wardrobe seem stuck in a soap opera from 1978), which Henry witnessed because he was in the backseat. As the “story” gets closer to his and Claire’s wedding day, he travels back and forth from the hours just before he’s due at the church, and various grim moments in the couple’s often stormy marriage. Oh, I almost forgot: interspersed throughout the six episodes to which I was subjected are moments when Henry and Claire break the fourth wall. They separately make video recordings of themselves after their wedding, presumably for the daughter it is implied they will have. All we get out of these scenes is what happens when Leslie and James meet the hair and makeup department’s prosthetics budget.
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” features exactly three decent performances. First is Rose Leslie, best known for setting Jon Snow (Kit Harington) straight (and then marrying him in real life); she does her best to elevate the material. Her movements and facial expressions are considered, occasionally sweetly moving, reflecting a depth unmatched by almost all her castmates. (As for Henry, I feel more excitement installing a new roll of toilet paper than from watching James act. His facial expressions, like the weather in Los Angeles, never change.) The second is Jason David, who plays child Henry. His performance as a boy who has begun to appear and disappear from school, and even his own bed, is imbued with age-appropriate wonder and fear, but he is heartbreakingly corrupted by older versions of himself, who teach him how to fight, steal, and lie in order to survive each trip through time. (Showing up naked in random places is quite tricky, you see.)
I’d begun missing David onscreen when I breathed a small sigh of relief: Desmin Borges arrives to play Gomez, Claire’s college roommate’s boyfriend, and the show's third good performance. There are few actors working today more criminally underrated than Borges, whose arc on FX’s “You’re the Worst” is among the best TV performances of the last two decades. Gomez is a lawyer, and utterly bewildered though he is by the two versions of Henry who show up to dinner at Claire’s apartment, he is advised by older Henry to support younger Henry, because “he will need you.” For the love of all that is holy, why do women and people of color have to put aside our own exhaustion and emotions to support white men? Borges provides vital doses of goofball energy, countered by moments of pensive persistence. He and Leslie play well off each other, and their scenes together seem to take place in a different, and better, show.
I do not understand how Steven Moffat went from “Sherlock” to developing this series. Like Netflix’s rubbish “Anatomy of a Scandal,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is lazy, a waste of HBO’s enormous resources. We’re all stuck in the same cycle: corporations feed us a steady diet of vapid content, we consume it, they make money off it while we learn to crave it. It’s easy to make dreck. It takes time to make something good.
Six episodes screened for review. Premieres Sunday, May 15.